Recently my wife and I did some house sitting for friends. It had been a welcome short break for us too – leaving our three bedroom terraced house in town for a spacious five bedroom detached cottage deep in the Kent countryside, with ten acres of land and nothing on the horizon but trees and the occasional oast house.
Our duties had not only been confined to the “country pile”, but a minor menagerie too. Firstly, we were asked to attend to the needs “on demand” of the family cat, a deaf, sixteen year old with the onset of dementia and the personality of an East End mobster. Then there was the cacophonous collection of ducks, moorhens and pheasants that hung out together around the pond, and the mass of birdlife, including woodpeckers, assorted tits and finches, wood pigeons, thrushes and others at their feeding station.
And finally, there were two shetland ponies, one palomino and the other chestnut, whom, for the first 24 hours, we were responsible for steering into their stables in the evening and out of them into the field the next morning.
Originally, we had been expected to look after the elderly black labrador dog too, but she had been unwell of late and travelled away with her owners. Disappointing though this development was, it did allow us to walk a lot further, which we took full advantage of.
But let’s return to the cat. We were told to feed him “when he whines”. That sounds easy – until you discover that he whines at least once an hour as he stands over a dish that, a short while ago, was gleaming with cat food, steamed with such delicacies as tuna, salmon and sardine. Periodic bowls of prawns completed his exotic, and clearly delicious, diet.
Once replete, his “demand” then extended to standing by the back door, insisting, in steadily increasing volume (remember, he is deaf), that, despite the fact that he could use the cat flap designed for the purpose is located in the front door, he be let out via that route (only to return by the cat flap, of course).
His life appears to be a constant cycle of eating and sleeping – which he did for hours on end, usually curled up by the side of the sitting room T.V. Just occasionally, he would ordain that he be stroked for a few moments, but not for long enough to engender sentimentality or diminish his street credibility. And, after all, we needed to know our place.
Now, I know his alternately independent and needy manner is only his cat nature, but it was the way in which he articulated the latter that was particularly alarming, and not a little scary. Dependent, I presume, upon his level of dissatisfaction at being ignored when he “whines”, he has an extraordinary range of sounds, from the traditional miaow, to a cute, lamb-like bleat, a remarkably human conversational tone and, ultimately, a hair-raising growl – the last usually doing the trick (crikey, where’s his food?).
Despite repeated staring competitions, and raised voices on either side, I’d like to think that, by the end of the weekend, whilst not becoming great friends, we had at least arrived at a tenuous understanding, though which of us was David Cameron and which Boris Johnson, I would not presume to guess.
And then there were the ponies. As their stables had already been “mucked out”, and their food and water prepared, our duties on the first evening were merely to guide them from the field into their respective stables, with the reverse operation the following morning. Now I’ll confess that we were not a little anxious about this.
Would they – especially as were strangers – take this opportunity to make a run for it when that gate was opened at 5.30pm? Or would they attack us, annoyed that they had been obliged to wait so long for their evening meal (despite the fact that they had each eaten a ton of grass during the day)? Or, perhaps, even worse, and I acknowledge that this would have been the least likely scenario, would they refuse to budge at all?
So we prepared very carefully for the ordeal.
Gate to outside world and freedom firmly closed?
Stable doors open to receive residents?
Route to compost heap cut off by strategically placed wheelbarrow (and male human of advancing years)?
Here goes – gate to field opened.
What happened there?
Within two seconds, and in a whirl of dried mud, hay and galloping hooves, they were ensconced in their respective stables, muzzles in their buckets of feed, hay and apples, oblivious to our concern as we picked ourselves up from the stony path.
For details of the following morning’s similar stampede, just read the foregoing account in reverse order.
Piece of cake then – or, perhaps, bowl of hay might be a more suitable metaphor.
The entertainment provided by the animals aside, it was a glorious weekend with warm spring sunshine throughout.
Fine weather helps of course, but these few days have confirmed that country life agrees with me. The only sounds were delightfully natural ones – the ducks greeting the dawn which, unfortunately, for some, appears to have broken at 2am, the diversity of birdsong, the calling of woodpeckers across the valley, and even the whinnying and kicking from the stables as the ponies became impatient to be released from their overnight custody.
As I finish this piece a pheasant scoots across the meadow in a hilarious audition for the role of the roadrunner in the re-creation of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. A squirrel clambers clumsily onto a bird feeder, only to be ganged up on by a crowd of coal tits. I will, however, gloss over the shenanigans in the vicinity of the pond where three male mallards chase and ultimately pin down a single female. Spring has undoubtedly sprung.
I would write more but I can hear the cat whining again.